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Germany’s Unwavering Support for Israel: A Matter of State

Germany’s laudable commitment to remembering its dark past means that marches in support of Palestinians are banned

Berlin, Germany, 5 November 2023. A significant pro-Israel rally as hundreds convened at Wittenbergplatz, waving Israeli flags and signs declaring ”Stand with Israel”. Photo credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Live News

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After Hamas’ deadly incursion on 7 October, the Israeli army has obliterated entire neighbourhoods of Gaza, reportedly killing over 10,000 people, including over 3000 children. Governments around the world have called for a ceasefire. But not Germany.

The German Government’s actions appear to echo its people’s desires. German newspapers, from left to right, have taken a clear line – unconditional support for Israel. While the UK’s Financial Times, not known for its left-wing bias, calls for a ceasefire, German papers across the political spectrum continue to back Israel wholeheartedly.

Typically, left-wing parties and political movements have supported the cause of the Palestinian people around the world. Not in Germany, where almost all left-of-centre parties have made their support for Israel explicit. Days into the war, a German Green Party constituency office unveiled a massive Israeli flag. After Greta Thunberg tweeted “Free Gaza”, members of Germany’s prominent ecological movement queued up to denounce her.

The German branch of her movement, Fridays for Future, distanced themselves from her international coalition. Even the “German Greta”, Luisa Neubauer, has publicly chastised her. Similarly, the German left party, Die Linke, equivalent to Sumar in Spain or the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, have taken a distinctly different position to their comrades in The Left Group in the EU Parliament.

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It is no surprise, looking at German media. Axel Springer, which publishes two of the most important papers, Bild and Die Welt, demands journalists defend Israel. They require all of their employees in Germany to sign up to their constitution, which defends the right of Israel to exist.

Axel Springer, which publishes Politico and Business Insider, doesn’t require staff outside of Germany to sign that contract but does expect them to act accordingly. Editors at news aggregator Upday, also run by Springer, saw editors allegedly asking employees to minimise Palestinian deaths, according to reporting in The Intercept.

Nominally left-wing media, like Die Tageszeitung, commonly known as ‘taz‘, also backs Israel almost unconditionally, although there doesn’t appear to be an editorial line requiring this.

Professor Dirk Moses of The City University of New York told Byline Times that articles humanising Palestinians in the German press are “increasingly rare in this quasi-wartime atmosphere in which any sign of questioning the state’s line leaves you open to denunciation as disloyal.” German media is in a frenzied crescendo – a British journalist in Berlin reports that chants of “Israel bombs, Germany pays” were misreported in Bild as “bomb Israel.”

The Holocaust is obviously the reason for Germany’s unwavering support for Israel. “History and our responsibility arising from the Holocaust make it our duty to stand up for the existence and security of the State of Israel” said Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, from the centre-left SPD Party, recently in Israel.


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Dealing with the Past:

The Anglosphere often looks to Germany as an example of a country that has come to terms with its past better than former colonial powers such as the UK or France. Comparisons are often made to the USA, which has largely ignored its history of slavery until recently. By contrast, Germany has an institutionalised, active culture of memory, starting with education. Schoolchildren must visit concentration camps and learn about the horrors perpetrated by their great-grandparents.

This remembrance culture translates politically into support for the State of Israel. In 2008, Angela Merkel avowed that Israel’s security is Germany’s Staatsräson, normally translated as “reason of state”, in a speech in Israel’s parliament.

Germany’s national myth, its reason to exist, is wrapped up in defending the Jewish people, which it considers to be akin to defending Israel. This German political non-negotiable exists across the political spectrum. A peculiarly German spectacle is the left-wing anti-Deutsche movement – communist punks who wave Israeli flags.

The taboo around criticising Israel allows space for bad actors to diminish valid, human rights-based criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza. Politicians like Volker Beck, President of the German-Israel Society, defend Israel’s actions on Twitter and leave no space to defend Palestinians. The Cambridge anthropologist Esra Özyürek has written about the German state’s penchant for “subcontracting” their guilt on to migrants, making Muslims study anti antisemitism in order to receive their rights.

In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement triggered a reckoning with the past, some in Germany started to make the link to Palestinian human rights.  The Cameroonian theorist Achille Mbembe found himself the object of a campaign to withdraw his invitation to a festival for daring to support Boycott, Divest, and Sanction – a movement which the German parliament has officially declared antisemitic. Since Mbembe’s exile, there have been regular cancellations of writers of colour for daring to support Palestine.


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Overlooking Palestinians

Germany’s difficult relationship with itself matters for Palestine. Germany is one of the most powerful voices on the Council of the EU, the European institution responsible for foreign policy. German foreign policy hugely influences that of the West. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is German and she has taken a clearly pro-Israel line. When she visited Israel, breaking protocol and without prior authorisation, to express EU support, she somehow forgot to ask Israel to respect international law. She was accused of unacceptable pro-Israel bia and now some Members of the European Parliament are calling for a vote of no confidence.

Some believe that Germany’s current approach to memory culture is culminating in a new authoritarianism. Dirk Moses argues that there is a hierarchy of racism in Germany: “what the rest of the world calls racism, most Germans call Fremdenfeindlichkeit: xenophobia.

By making this spurious distinction, not only is actual racism trivialized, but the campaign against antisemitism can become a vehicle of racism because the Arab and Muslim communities are policed for signs of antipathy to Israel, which is distorted to mean antisemitism.” Leading politicians are calling for the deportation of migrants who do not share the German Staatsräson.

“It’s hard to see German officials restraining the Israelis who do seek ethnic cleansing,” says Moses, commenting on the dark irony in Germany providing diplomatic cover for Israel as it carries out possible war crimes. “It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Germany now gives diplomatic cover to Israel with the International Criminal Court. Who would have thought that after the country made itself a champion of international justice and international law?”

Protest marches in solidarity with Palestine are banned in Germany. But some people are taking to the streets across the country anyway. And the near total support for Israel in German media is not necessarily the complete will of the German people – a recent poll found that 41% think that Israel’s military has gone too far. The German national psyche is necessarily related to addressing its terrible past. But it will have to widen its focus if Germany is to avoid supporting another genocide.

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